In recent months the UFC have set out their stall with regards to Pay-Per-View events in a very specific manner. If it sells, it goes on PPV. While that may sound like an obvious statement, the consequences of this mantra will mean that by UFC 159, 3 of the last 4 UFC title fights will have been contested by challengers who have come off of losses. Frankie Edgar, Nick Diaz and Chael Sonnen all bypassed the rest of their respective divisions to get immediate title shots despite the outcome of their last bout.
This trend is quite worrisome. If the UFC are to continue promoting title fights involving challengers who are clearly not ranked high enough (or at all) in their division, they will see a serious decline in interest from fans who feel cheated out of the fights that showcase the best two guys in a division fighting out for the top prize in their weight class. It appears that over the 7 months or so, with the exception of Georges St Pierre vs Carlos Condit and Velasquez vs Dos Santos II, the only “true” title fights between champion and number one contender we have seen have been on free TV events, when the UFC are not looking to maximise their buy rates.
To further elaborate on my point let’s take a look at the last 7 months, starting from September 2012. Obviously UFC 151 did not happen, but in the wake of the phantom event came a light heavyweight title fight at UFC 152 that literally only happened because there was no one else with a big enough name
to fight Jon Jones. Machida turned the fight down, Shogun turned the fight down, Vitor Belfort didn’t. So we were given a title fight involving one of the most dominant champions to ever reign in the UFC against a man who hadn’t fought at light heavyweight since 2007. However, Vitor Belfort is an MMA legend, people know who he is. The UFC therefore had no hesitation in placing him on PPV.
The other PPVs in this time included the fights mentioned previously, meaning that of the 8 events held, 4 of them involved fighters who were not really in a justifiable position to fight for a title. Of the other 4: one involved Anderson Silva stepping in on short notice to fight an aging Stephan Bonnar in a light heavyweight bout at UFC 153; another showcased the first women’s fight in the UFC, which was essentially Ronda Rousey vs “Any Female Who Will Take This Fight”; and the other 2 were genuine title fights between the two best fighters in their weight classes. That’s 2 out of 7 (not including the Silva Bonnar non-title fight) where the title challenge has been fully justified and deserving.
On the other hand we have the title fights that have occurred on free TV (USA only, as UK gets all events for one monthly price.) As I have included Jones vs Sonnen in this argument which doesn’t take place until the end of April, I will also include Benson Henderson vs Gilbert Melendez, which takes place the week before, as well. In this time period there will have been 4 title fights broadcast on free TV. Two lightweight title fights, one flyweight title fight, and one interim bantamweight title fight.
If we look at the title challengers in those fights, Nate Diaz, Gilbert Melendez, John Dodson and Michael McDonald, all had legitimate claims to the number one contender spot in their respective divisions. Diaz was sporting a 3 fight win streak, including a stoppage of ultra-tough Jim Miller; McDonald, an 8 fight win streak; Dodson a 5 fight win streak, including winning The Ultimate Fighter in the weightclass above him; and Melendez who has come into the UFC as reigning Strikeforce Champion and unbeaten in his last 7 fights. Every single one of these guys had amassed very impressive win streaks before getting their chance at a UFC belt, but because they are not the household names of Chael Sonnen, Frankie Edgar or Vitor Belfort they were promoted on free TV instead of PPV.
Yes this form of show does expose them to a greater audience but they have essentially missed out on the extra revenue the PPV would have generated for them. What this strategy employed by the UFC is doing is giving the impression that only the biggest names are allowed to both headline PPV cards and fight for world titles. With the exceptions of the lightweight and the heavyweight title, all the others that have been shown on free TV have been the lower weight classes, the ones that fans are still getting to know the fighters. I understand that the larger audience on TV is a way of bulking up the lower weight class fan base but it also perpetuates the idea that these titles are not good enough to be shown on PPV.
However, there does seem to be some evidence that the UFC is reverting back to its practice of awarding number one contenders fights against their weight class’s champions on PPV. At UFC 158 Johny Hendricks put his stamp on the number one contender position in the welterweight division. In beating Carlos Condit in their highly entertaining showcase off all facets of MMA, Hendricks now has 6 victories in a row including Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, and Martin Kampmann; all of whom were near top 5 when they faced Hendricks. His place in the division is undeniable, which will surely lead to a GSP vs Hendricks fight once GSP recovers from an achilles injury he sustained in the build-up to his fight with Nick Diaz. The UFC have all but announced this match up, but anyone other than Hendricks as a next opponent for GSP would be ridiculous. Even if they tried to put together the GSP vs Anderson Silva fight, interest in it seems to have diminished so much that fans would probably welcome Hendricks vs GSP more readily.
We can see another example of this in the middleweight division, as Anderson Silva has been announced against undefeated Chris Weidman. Weidman is the number one contender in the middleweight division, but he has arrived in the spot by default as all the other middleweight contenders keep beating each other and taking each other out of title contention. Nevertheless, the UFC have given the next middleweight title opportunity to a man with only 9 professional fights, but has been impressive over those nine fights, as was evident in his last win when he KO’ed Mark Munoz with a standing elbow strike.
Given the worrying trend that has sprung up lately with regard to the allocation of title shots it is refreshing to see that the UFC seems to be listening to fan complaints. We are not completely out of the woods yet, as featherweight contenders keep getting passed over for title shots by lightweight fighters dropping down a division, but at least the UFC are showing that they are moving back in the right direction. Hopefully in the future this will mean the smaller weight classes get their chances on PPV and are not permanently relegated to the FOX, FX and Fuel TV Cards. In a perfect, fair sporting world this would already be the case, but given that the UFC is a company based on profit maximisation only time will tell.
Photos via Sherdog/Dave Mandel